Countdown to Zero: One – Bring on the Flying Monkeys

TROUBLESHOOTER:
Countdown to Zero
by Andrea Speed
One – Bring on the Flying Monkeys

He should have known something was wrong the instant he realized his neighbor was blasting Elton John.

No one blasted Elton John. Maybe in the ‘70’s, but not nowadays. It was like blasting elevator music, or the “soft rock” they played in the dentist’s office – not only was it not done, it was just fundamentally wrong.

countdowntozerocover.gifStill, Shan basically ignored it as he let himself in his apartment and threw his gear on the couch. He flipped on the light and kicked the door shut as he took his small bag of groceries into his “kitchenette”, which actually seemed to share an awful lot of space with his living room. Not that it mattered; the place was small – cozy, in real estate parlance – but it suited his needs, as his entertaining was limited to the occasional guest who rarely stayed more than a night. And it had been a while since he’d had anyone over who wasn’t Z or a fellow bouncer, and they just didn’t count.

He put away his chips and salsa, and cracked open a Red Bull, trying to figure out what apartment it was, and who it belonged to. He really didn’t know too many people here. He had only moved in a little over two months ago, and he’d been really busy, what with the club, occasionally doing stuff with Z, and working at the rink. Z liked to tease him about that, but he did enjoy it. At first, just the idea of being able to skate again appealed to him – he was skating at about the same time he was walking – but he found he actually kind of enjoyed teaching the kids some rudimentary hockey basics. And, rather bizarrely, they seemed to think he was cool. Maybe because he not only showed them his brain surgery scar, but he let them touch it. Kids loved that gross stuff. On the bright side, he never had to remind them to wear their helmets.

He only had about forty minutes to get ready for bouncing, or as he liked to call it ‘the night job’. It was only a few blocks over, so there was no hassle in getting there, and it was pretty cool really. Chaos was considered trendy, so he wasn’t so much as rousting combative drunks at closing time as warning obnoxious Yuppies to turn and walk away before he tossed them into the Dumpster. It wasn’t gay night (the club had gay only nights – that seemed to be a huge hit), so he didn’t even have to dress that well, meaning he had some time to kill.

He retrieved his duffle bag full of stripped down hockey gear from the couch and tossed it in his closet, then got his pills and gulped them down with his Red Bull.

He knew he should eat something, but during the first fifty minutes or so, his anti-seizure medication made him feel nauseous. The funny thing was he knew these meds didn’t help his petit mals much at all, but it was better than nothing – barely. He had tried going without them for a little while, but his gaps of missing time got worse and worse, and there was nothing more disconcerting than to look at the clock and realize that, while you thought you’d been sitting there for ten minutes, an hour had actually gone by. It was like reality randomly spit him out, then felt sorry for him and pulled him back in. He hated it, but there was almost nothing they could do about it. Unless his mind spontaneously healed on its own, he’d be forever slipping in and out of time, wondering how much of life had passed him by while his brain kept him in the dark.

The Red Bull was making his heart race at ninety miles a minute, which on the one hand wasn’t good, but on the other hand he was very much awake and no longer tired. Sometimes he felt a little run down after teaching the kids and spending a couple hours skating, but Red Bull – as bad as it tasted – always got him raring to go for the job. It reminded him of that parody ad on Dave Chapelle’s show about “Red Balls”, liquid cocaine in a can. Frankly, if it existed, there were times when he might buy it.

He went and took a piss, and after checking in the bathroom mirror to make sure he didn’t actually look hopped up on goofballs, he started sniffing shirts in his closet, trying to find one that was clean enough to wear tonight (could he help that he still hated doing laundry, no matter how convenient and updated the apartment’s laundry room was? ) when there was a sudden “pop” upstairs.

Or maybe it was a crash. But nothing hit the floor – or at least, not when the pop happened – and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” had almost totally buried it. But it raised the hair on the back of his neck, reminded him of something he had heard before …

A car backfire? Kind of, but sharper, louder. Kind of like that time …

… like that time Z shot that guy.

He now knew what writers meant when they said someone’s bowels turned to ice. He looked up at the ceiling, half expecting to see a big red stain starting to form, oozing across the stucco like spilled paint.

No, it couldn’t have been a gunshot. They dropped something heavy on a counter or something, or cooked a potato in the microwave. It wasn’t a gunshot – how could it be? This was Canada, and they weren’t like America, where every frat boy and his ex-girlfriend had a gun and weren’t afraid to use it. Still, they were close to the border …

He kept listening for something, but all he heard was some footsteps, and Elton John had segued into one of Sting’s mellower pieces, suggesting the stereo was on a soft rock channel. Which was wrong, of course; it was all wrong.

If he didn’t check it out, it would bug him, so he decided to go see what the hell was going on.

He supposed he should be worried – after all, if someone had been shot, he was going up to face them with nothing but curiosity – but that was one of the things he supposed came with his brain injury. Even when he knew he was doing something stupid, it didn’t stop him.

He reached for his back pocket, checking for his cell phone, as he reached the bottom of the wrought iron stairs that led up to the second floor, and heard the thud of hasty footsteps, ringing musically through the metal. He told himself it was pure coincidence, that anyone could be running, but he didn’t quite believe it. He was half way up by the time the two men reached the top of the stairs and started pounding down towards him.

It was Canada, and a little cold, so he couldn’t be completely judgmental, but it was hard to trust two men wearing black ski masks. “Hey guys,” he began, trying to be friendly. “Did you hear -”

They both barreled towards him, heedless, and the one on the right pulled back his arm to punch him.

What a mistake. The pills hadn’t slowed him down yet, he was full of caffeine, and he’d just come from teaching hockey. He was not the man to start something with.

He shoulder checked the guy trying to run into him, sending him crashing into the railing – which he promptly fell half way over, grabbing on desperately to keep from going head first down to the cement. The guy on the right threw his punch, but Shan caught his fist, and rammed his knee into his exposed gut … or at least he intended to. But the guy was on a higher stair, and he ended up jamming his knee right in his balls.

The guy probably tried to scream, but it came out a painful, high pitched squeak. He sagged against the railing like his legs had given up on him, and Shan actually felt bad for him. A gut shot was one thing, but a ball shot was another. “Oh, sorry about that,” he said, grimacing in sympathy.

The second guy managed to pull himself back from the railing, and snapped, “Stupid fucker!” He jammed a hand into his coat pocket.

You didn’t need to be a bouncer, or Z’s back-up, to know that someone going for something in his pocket was never a good thing. He gave him a quick, hard rabbit punch to the stomach (he aimed correctly this time), doubling him over, then connected with an upper cut to the underside of his jaw. He slammed back against the railing, almost losing his balance again, but this time Shan helped him. He shoved his chin up, bending him back, and then grabbed his leg and helped gravity haul him over the side. It wasn’t a long fall, but the guy didn’t have time to break his fall with his hands; it looked very much like he broke his fall with his face. That had to hurt.

“You call me the stupid fuck, and you attack a big Irish guy?” He replied, wondering how they could be such morons. He glanced at the second guy, who was on his knees on the metal stairs, holding his balls and making small retching sounds. He was no longer a threat, as you had to stand to be considered one, and he really did feel bad. His intention had been to knee him so hard in the gut that he’d barf up everything he’d eaten since he was born – how would that feel getting it in the nuts? Ooh, he didn’t even want to imagine.

He took the stairs two at a time and turned left at the top, the direction from which those two assholes had come from, and heard the music quite clearly. It seemed to be coming from the third door down, which was shut tightly. He didn’t know why, but he thought it would be ajar.

He rapped on the door, and asked, “Hello?” He wasn’t sure he could be heard over Sting, so after a long moment, he tried the doorknob. The door was unlocked, which was no shock, and he peered in cautiously. “Hello?”

There was a man on the floor between the floor of his “kitchenette” and the threadbare carpet of his living room. It looked like he had spilled some syrup, maybe some tomato sauce, but … oh shit, yeah, it wasn’t anything that nice.

“Holy shit,” he exclaimed, going to the man and pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. The guy was dressed in ratty jeans and a sweat stained white tank top quickly turning a dark and terrible red. He was average in almost every visible aspect, except he was a generous late twenties, his hard life reflected in every premature line on his craggy face. His eyes were so pale that they were more gray than anything else, but so bloodshot they very nearly resembled grapes. He was opening and closing his mouth soundlessly, like a fish out of water, and he seemed to be trying to point something, but his arm wasn’t quite working right. It had an odd flaccidity, suggesting only the upper part worked.

“What?” Shan asked, trying to follow both the gesture and his pained, insistent gaze. He looked around the room, trying to figure out what was out of place. As far as he could tell, it was just an apartment like any other; a little messy maybe, but didn’t you expect that of a bachelor? Finally he followed his eyes to the kitchen counter, where there was a really weird coffee machine or alarm clock on the small slice of counter between the oven and the sink. What the hell was it?

It looked like two short, wide canisters attached to a small red digital clock face by a messy tangle of wires, but the clocks digits were all wrong. There was no :47 o’clock. Or :46, or :45 …

No fucking way. A bomb?! Somebody left a bomb?!

He knew he should have stopped at Tim Horton’s and gotten a coffee instead of coming home first. That would teach him to … well, it would teach him something.

If he lived through the next forty seconds.

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